"Where do you get the cock and balls?" I ask a naked man. He looks at me.
Outside, fifteen or so people are on the open-air dancefloor, talking, moving to a beat, enjoying themselves. It's a nice evening. The sun has yet to set, music plays, and couples are gradually drifting indoors. From the outside, this is a conventional party and one of many similar social gatherings currently taking place in the online world of Second Life. The view from inside the house, however, tells a radically different story.
This is one of Second Life's numerous free sex clubs, a never-ending party where people can meet, dance and, if they happen to hit it off, move swiftly on to the next stage. Poseballs - switches that trigger character animations - are everywhere. But while these are normally used for animating everything from eating to playing pool, here they enable up to four people to join together in an array of lascivious combinations. I've come here to start my journey through the world of virtual sex: to find out where it happens, how it happens, and why it happens.
Second Life is a world apart from most MMO games. For a start, it's not a game. With no goal and no specific mandate, developers Linden Labs have instead created the tools necessary for users to make their own fun. The community has created the architecture, the clothes, the animations and the code that make SL such a fascinating place to visit.
Where such freedom exists, sex is sure to follow. For most, it's not a concern, merely another oddity in an already colourful world. For others, it's the entire reason for being here.
There are those who write the code that make it possible, and those who become strippers and prostitutes to make it easy. There are those for whom it's a way of life, and there are those for whom it's a genuine, emotive expression of love. Mainly, though, it's a community of explorers and fetishists, and of curious gamers looking for a cheap, thoughtless thrill.
Sex in Second Life is more than mere mimicry of the real world: it's an entire industry unto itself. Here, in the bottom floor of this mansion by the sea, among the finely coiffed and immaculately undressed, my avatar looks gormless and crude. Designed primarily by hitting the randomise button too many times on the character creation screen and infused with life by clumsy, default animations, I look like an overly-stretched man stumbling with the wandering gait of Frankenstein's monster.
It's with this lumbering momentum that I've approached a naked man I don't know in a house I've never been to before, and it's with dead eyes that I'm enquiring about where I can purchase genitalia.
Let me explain. While Linden Labs haven't discouraged sexual conduct, they haven't encouraged it either. Avatars are as anatomically correct as Ken and Barbie dolls. If you like your salacious simulacra to be as accurate as possible, you have to purchase one of the many available devices that turn your empty plate into a full meat and two veg.
The man I'm talking to has his equipment in full view, and I'm banking on him being able to help me. "Where do you get the cock and balls?" I ask again. He explains that they're sold in stores around the world. I'm aware of that, but don't know where any such stores are. Luckily, he then offers to sell me one. Or a pair. Or a set. I'm not sure. A plate-full, anyway.
He suggests 400 Linden dollars - the in-game currency. That's around 75p. It seems more than reasonable, until from the other side of the room another man, decked head to foot in leather, speaks up: "I'll sell you a penis for 350 Lindens." Sold! I can't resist a thrifty bargain. We make the exchange and I slip off to an empty room to try it on for size. But my frugality did not serve me well: my new genitalia are a mere novelty, seemingly struck with a permanent case of rigor mortis. To have such a thing in real life would cause you to pass out from lack of blood to the brain.